When I travel, I seek out authentic experiences. I hate waiting in lines, being among the crowds, and having to fight for a spot in a room. Once you’ve traveled to Europe for over 3 months as I have, you eventually get over the sheer number of cathedrals and the art museums. They are literally everywhere. Not to mention, they almost always cost an arm and a leg. If you choose to see them all, the admission fees from the top attractions will really start to add up. If you’re not into the typical art museum, are on a budget, or would like to supplement your trip with alternative things to do in Paris, then this post is perfect for you!
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Alternative To The Top Attractions
First, take some time to reflect on what your interests are. Do you like parks and nature? Kitschy or themed museums, as opposed to traditional art museums? Music and the performing arts? I fall into this category, the traveler that isn’t too fond of spending her time stuck indoors looking at art exhibits day in and day out. I’d much rather be out there roaming the streets and getting to know the city on a deeper level, which means checking out the lesser-known attractions of a destination city. Here’s a guide on what to do when you’re not feeling the top attractions listed on all those other Paris guides.
For weirdos out there like me.
Musée des Arts Forains | My all-time favorite hidden gem
I cannot gush about this museum enough. As soon as you step into the Pavillons de Bercy, you will forget everything that belongs to your modern, technologically advanced life. The Museum of Fairground Arts takes you off the beaten path as you enjoy feeling like a kid again, except now you’re a kid in the 1800-1900’s. This interactive museum holds a unique collection of performing arts objects from the 19th and 20th centuries. Think vintage carnival games, merry-go-rounds, and contraptions. It is a timeless getaway into the themes of curiosity cabinets, carnivals, incredible gardens, and pure vaudeville joy.
Pro Tip: You’ll need to book a tour, and the English tours are limited. I attended the French tour and was provided with an English handout so I could follow along with what the tour guide was saying. Nevertheless, I had an amazing experience here. Once you hop on the merry-go-round or the bicycle ride and begin playing the carnival games, you forget that you can’t speak French.
Le Musée des Vampires | Museum of Vampires and Legendary Creatures
Um, how do you say no to this? The Musée des Vampires is a small private museum dedicated to all things vampires and how they fit into folklore and modern culture. The cabinet of curiosities is packed with all sorts of stuff related to vampires, mythology, and weird stuff in general. I didn’t get to go during my last trip as I was short on time, but let it be known it’s at the top of my next trip to Paris.
Pro Tip: I’ve done a lot of research on this museum, so use these tips! As it’s a private museum, you must have an appointment to visit. Don’t show up unannounced! You can email the owner, Jacques Sirgent, directly at [email protected]. If you speak French or can at least say “do you speak English” in French, you can try calling as well. (Memorize this, you’ll need it: “parlez-vous anglais?”) The museum is located at 14 rue Jules David, Les Lilas (93). The closest metro station is Porte des Lilas, line 11.
Musée Carnavalet | Museum with objects from Paris’ past
Occupying two neighboring historical mansions, the Carnavalet Museum (Musée Carnavalet) in Paris tells the story of the city from its founding. Sounds like a boring history museum, until you consider the fact that it houses these items: personal items belonging to Marie-Antoinette, paintings of Madame de Sévigné who was considered the most beautiful woman in Paris, Napoleon’s case of toiletries and his death mask, an Art Nouveau jewelry boutique of Georges Fouquet, and French Revolution objects such as guillotine toys made of bone.
Pro tip: I would have loved to go to this museum, but it was closed for renovation when I went and remains so until the end of 2019. Check the website for up-to-date information on this!
Museum of the History of Medicine | Museum with some of the oldest medical collections
This museum features collections dating back to the 18th century, showcasing the evolution of medical instruments. It’s one of the oldest medical collections in Europe focusing on rare surgical instruments. As a science major, I’m a total geek for this kind of stuff. It’s crazy to see how far we’ve come from a medical and scientific perspective. Definitely worth checking out if you’re into health and medicine. There’s a small entry fee of 4€, cash only.
Musée de la Vie Romantique | Museum dedicated to life in the Romantic period
Part of the fun about being in Paris is embracing the culture of love! This is a very pretty house from the early 19th Century that houses a collection where you can learn about the French movement of “romantique”. The outdoor garden and cafe is one of the city’s most beautiful hidden escapes and is definitely worth a visit. Spend some time sitting among the lush surroundings with a tea or coffee and enjoy the peace of it all.
Pro Tip: You might not know what you’re looking at since placards are in French, but the charm of the property and ambiance of being in the garden might be worth it. Usually free all around, but only a section of the museum is accessible for free when a temporary exhibition is happening.
Palais Galliera (Paris Fashion Museum) | Museum for high-fashion lovers
This museum is for you if you love architecture, stunning grounds, and fashion. Set in a beautiful old mansion, this museum features a rotating collection of high-fashion legendary designers, fashion icons, clothing styles, influences, and inspirations.
Read More: Photos That Will Inspire You To Visit Paris
Jardin Du Luxembourg | Must-see garden for relaxing and people watching
It’s a beautifully decorated space with endless entertaining activities. Pony rides, merry-go-rounds, and carousels are just some of the many things you can do in Jardin Du Luxembourg. The park is also known for its famous Guignol puppet show, which I am a huge fan of. I’d come here on some downtime, pull up a chair (they’re located all around the park), rest your feet, and just watch the world go by with a croissant in hand.
Jardin Des Tuileries | Must-see garden for relaxing and people watching
This garden park gives you awesome views of the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe. It now includes fun and festive activities such as a merry-go-round and swing boats, or you can feed your belly at one of the crepe and cotton-candy stands.
Père Lachaise Cemetery | France’s most famous cemetery
Located in the northeast corner of Paris, the Pere Lachaise Cemetery is the most visited cemetery in the world. It is the burial site of numerous French authors, writers, and musicians including Jim Morrison, Chopin, Moliere, Edith Piaf, Rossini, and Oscar Wilde. The cemetery is beautiful, peaceful historical, and a work of art in itself. Spend an hour or two strolling around and enjoying your surroundings here.
Free Walking Tour | Fun way to get educated on a city’s history and culture
France has so much history and culture and I find that “free” walking tours are an amazing way to learn about Paris for super cheap. There are so many neighborhood and theme options to choose from, including the following: Paris landmarks, hidden gems, and secrets of Paris, Montmartre, Le Marais, and even night walks. There are tons of tip-based walking tours in Paris, so do your research to see which company vibes with you the most.
Pro tip: I tend to look for the smaller ones because often times they give you a more authentic story of the city as they’re held by locals who are truly passionate about their city. To find these, I’” navigate to the 2nd or 3rd page of my Google search for “Free Walking Tour Paris”.
Looking for even more themed tours? You can find chocolate and pastry tours, hidden Paris bike tours, Taste of Montmartre food tours, ghost and legends night walks, cheese and wine tasting, and more in Paris. During my personal trip research, these were some of the ones that stood out to me the most. When I get the chance, I’m going to do all of these.
The Catacombs | House of skeletons with a significant history
Deep below the Paris streets, there are almost 200 miles of ancient mine shafts and underground tunnels lined with human skeletons representing over 2,000 years of history. The popular site houses the skeletal remains of six to seven million former Parisians.
Pro Tip: This is a popular attraction, and the wait to get in is often over an hour. To avoid the long line, purchase your tickets ahead of time. If you want to wait in line, get there before 9am. I’ve read of people getting in line at 9am, and didn’t actually enter the stairway to the Catabombs until 90 minutes later. The long wait time is due to the 200 person restriction in the catacombs. This tour allows you to skip the line.
Explore Le Marais | Get caught up in the coolest neighborhood in Paris
If I could visit one neighborhood again and again, it would be Le Marais. This bohemian neighborhood is one of Paris’ coolest and hippest areas. Spend an afternoon soaking in the liveliness, eating at as many Parisian boulangeries and Jewish restaurants as possible, and shopping at the plentiful independent boutiques. Rue St. Antoine and Rue des Rosiers are two of the more bustling streets in the area.
Pro tip: I’m so glad I splurged on an Airbnb in this neighborhood. It was so convenient and homey to walk downstairs, pick up a baguette, jam, and cheeses, and head back to my studio room. If you can swing it, I’d highly recommend staying in this neighborhood over any of the other ones. If you are looking for an apartment rental in Paris, Airbnb is the way to go (first timers, use this link for a discount).
Palace of Versailles | One whole day of opulence
The Château de Versailles is extremely popular, so why is it on this list? A lot of people miss this on their first visit to Paris, but I think it’s completely worth the trek, worth the time and worth every penny. I carved out an entire day for this attraction, took public transportation on my own early in the morning, spent 9 hours exploring, and ended up walking a total of 19 miles by the end of the day. One truly epic day.
There’s so much to see, from the main palace and vast garden grounds to the Grand/Petit Trianon. Words cannot describe how magnificent this place is, so I won’t try. Just see it for yourself, your eyes will thank you.
Pro tip #1: Even though the palace was spectacular and blew my mind, I would recommend spending the majority of your time at the gardens. I got there a bit before they opened, was the first one admitted for the day, and started at the gardens first while every else poured into the palace. I basically had the entire garden grounds to myself (as seen in the pictures), which made for one of the most magical experiences in Paris for me. They often have classical music playing in each of the themed gardens, which adds another layer to how enchanting this place is. Also, save time for the Queen’s Hamlet in the Trianon Gardens.
Pro tip #2: I’d highly recommend bringing snacks with you— the grounds are so big, by the time you’re halfway through a garden area, you’ll likely have to walk long distances to get to a lunch spot. I wasn’t able to completely explore the Trianon gardens because I was starving. For lunch, stop by the Angelina cafe they have there (if Angelina is on your list of places to eat, then you’ve just killed two birds with one stone). So many yummy and iconically Parisian desserts!
You’ll need to wake up early (6-7am or so) or else deal with the lines. This tour is a good skip-the-line option.
If you’d rather bike than walk mile upon miles through the massive grounds, check out this skip-the-line bike tour option!
French Cooking Class | Cook food or learn how to make croissants
Let’s be honest. You’re going to come home from your trip to Paris and wish you knew how to replicate those flaky, crispy croissants. Why not take a croissant baking class and take some new skills with home? If pastries aren’t your thing, take it next level and learn how to cook authentic French cuisine! You could be so cool, so French, and truly impress your friends back home.
Palais Garnier | Extremely opulent opera house
Some of the buildings in Paris make you wonder how so much money existed back then to create such structures. One of those places is the Palace of Versailles (which I highly recommend). Another is Palais Garnier. This 19th century Opera House is one of the most opulent buildings in Paris and is one of the most recognized opera houses in the world. The architecture is in the Beaux Arts style of the time, distinguished by heavy glass chandeliers, sweeping marble staircases and ritzy decorations. Now, it is home to the Paris Ballet. You can either choose to watch an opera/ballet/music show there or simply take a tour of the grandiose building.
59 Rivoli | The art squat of Paris
If you’re sick of the typical art museum but still love art, this attraction is for you. 59 Rivoli is part-gallery, part-studio, and part-celebration of artistic freedom. The walls and floors are covered in sketches and paint, and the spiral staircase is a sight to see as well. Each room is different from the next, taking on the style and feel of the artist inhabiting it. On Saturdays and Sundays starting at 6 p.m. there are free concerts in the ground-floor gallery. Twice a year, the collective organizes a weekend-long music and art festival, filling the whole space with live music. Check it out, it’s free!
The Moulin Rouge Paris Theatre Show | Lively dinner and show
Okay, this is totally touristy but who hasn’t been inspired by Moulin Rouge? I totally wanted those vibes to be real life, and this was it (and more)! Enjoy dinner and champagne as you prepare for a dazzling night of drama, dance and music. The elaborately dressed showgirls and can-can dancers are so, so entertaining. You’ll for sure be in for a lively treat.
Pro Tip: Afterward, step into the streets and explore the rest of Montmartre’s nightlife, there’s so much going on in this neighborhood at night.
What are some of your favorite off-the-beaten-path attractions in Paris?
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